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Female knuckleballer Baker makes mark on diamond

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

When she was 7 years old, Chelsea Baker switched from playing softball to baseball because her older brother, Gary, was playing the latter.

The reason?

“So my parents could watch us play at the same time,” Baker revealed in Tokyo last week. “I started playing baseball with my brother, and I loved it so much more. So I just kept playing.”

Playing the sports she was almost forced to play in the beginning, the 14-year-old Baker has become a right-handed phenom, overpowering boys while pitching in the Plant City Little League in Florida.

“I feel like I haven’t really accomplished a lot,” said the humble Baker, who took a six-day trip to Japan along with her mother, Missy, and stepfather Rod Mason last week.

They were in Japan to promote a friendship series between selected female players from Japan and the United States. The game, organized by Osaka-based NPO Hit & Run, is scheduled for the summer of 2013. (Justine Siegal, a former professional player who became the first woman to toss MLB batting practice, doing so at Cleveland Indians’ spring training last year, represents the U.S. as a coach.)

Baker’s fame isn’t limited to just the small town of Plant City (population: about 34,000), but throughout the entire country. Baker, who’s tossed a couple of perfect games in her career, has been featured in numerous media outlets, including ESPN’s documentary series, “E:60.”

The jersey that she wore in 2010 for her second perfect game was later donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

According to her stepfather and coach Mason, she’s been unbeaten over the last six years. Baker has three different pitches in her arsenal, including a fastball, which, according to her, hits about 120 kph, and a curveball. But the knuckleball is her top pitch, the one that made her famous.

“It’s really cool to have everybody know me, because of who I am and what I did and stuff, especially in different countries,” said Baker, who was asked how she thinks of herself being a sort of a celebrity in the United States and beyond.

And speaking of the magical pitch, there’s Eri “Knuckleball Princess” Yoshida, who has played professionally, including a stint with the Chico Outlaws of the independent North American League and in Japan.

Asked whether she’s embarrassed to be famous for her knuckleball like Yoshida, Baker responded with a smile and said she wouldn’t be as known as she is without tossing it.

“If I never learned it, I don’t think I’m as popular as I am today,” said Baker, who was taught the knuckleball by the late Joe Niekro, a 221-game-winner in the major leagues.

In 2010, Baker and Yoshida had previously met in Florida during a Japanese TV news segment on the former. They even played some catch at that time. And during Baker’s trip to Osaka, they had an opportunity to meet each other again.

Yoshida, 20, who is playing for the Kansai Independent League’s Hyogo Blue Sanders this year, was pleased to reunite with the American version of the knuckleball princess and seemed to receive some inspiration from her.

“(Baker) is much younger than me, but she’s got a lot of knowledge on the knuckleball and is experienced in this sport,” Yoshida was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.

On the other hand, Baker tipped her hat to Yoshida, because she’s done something very few female ballplayers have done on either side of the Pacific Ocean.

” I look up to her because I never knew any girl that’s gotten that far in baseball,” said Baker of Yoshida after demonstrating her pitching form during a public event in Osaka. “So she’s kind of my role model.”

Baker has expressed an interest in sports medicine, but isn’t ruling out a potential career as a player. After all, on the diamond she seems to not really know what to expect.

“As far as baseball, I have no idea. … It depends,” Baker said.